I remember watching Superman Returns with Kevin Spacey playing Lex Luthor and thinking how disappointing that was. It came down to Lex and Superman as rivals: there was no thrill, no electricity! A hero is defined by the quality of his nemesis. Lex is a regular guy and Superman is basically a god. There shouldn’t have even been a challenge there. Eric Porter as Moriarty, on the other hand, makes for a marvelous adversary and the interaction between Sherlock and Moriarty is top notch. This is how you do a hero/villain meet up.
There’s a lot to say here and it might not all fit within the confines of our weekly format… but I’ll certainly try to make it work!
The crime is nothing less than the murder of Sherlock Holmes! How’s that for a tagline? We don’t even know for sure how it happened, but we have Watson’s imagination to help us piece it together.
Holmes has interfered with Professor Moriarty one time too many and the Professor has reached his limit. His latest plan involved stealing the Mona Lisa, only to hide the original and sell copies at exorbitant prices. When Holmes recaptures the original, Moriarty was on the cusp of a 4 million pound sale. With the sale canceled, Moriarty goes to see Holmes at 221b.
The entire sequence is amazing; it’s what Luthor and Superman failed to achieve on any level whatsoever. Take this piece of dialogue between the two men:
Moriarty: It has been a duel between you and me, Mr. Holmes. You hope to place me in the dock. You hope to beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured I shall do as much for you.
Sherlock: You have paid me several compliments, Mr. Moriarty. Let me pay you one in return when I say that if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.
The sequence is mesmerizing. This is the way a hero/villain relationship should work. I say without any hesitation, the moment is electric!
Holmes avoids Moriarty while the police of Scotland Yard round up his men, but the spider at the center of the web escapes. He tracks Holmes through the Swiss Alps. When Watson is given a note about an English woman dying back at the local hotel, he goes to help her, but it’s a ruse to separate Holmes from his trusty friend. Moriarty awaits Holmes by the Reichenbach Falls.
Even here we have to pause to examine the relationship between the two adversaries. Holmes and Moriarty stand alone. Moriarty is older than Sherlock, yet Holmes knows this could still be the end. And yet Moriarty allows Holmes to write a goodbye message for his friend. There is a respect between the two men; two equal but opposite sides of the same coin. It’s rare to find such a strong connection but it’s no wonder Moriarty became the most legendary villain of the canon.
Holmes disguises himself as a vicar to board a train undetected. He engages in fisticuffs with ruffians and outthinks his opponents on nearly every level. But this is positively eclipsed by the sequence at Reichenbach when the two men fight and plummet over the side together. There are countless images of the battle, and little could be as iconic!
Speaking of iconic moments, there is a scene of Moriarty getting to the train station too late. He comes out of the lower level of the train station but the visual effect is perfect: he’s climbing out of the underground, surrounded by dark, swirling clouds. A veritable black-clad demon rising from Hades Den in search of his quarry.
Moriarty: Everything I have to say has already crossed your mind.
Holmes: Then possibly my answer has crossed yours.
I don’t think I can praise this episode any more highly. It is the pinnacle of the season. If there’s a downfall to the episode, it’s the fall at the Falls. The cables are so clearly visible as the two men fall it distracts a little bit and that’s a shame. Holmes in particular is clearly being lowered on some cables, but the sequence is undeniably mesmerizing before the two are dashed against the rocks. Watson looks right at the camera and tells us that Sherlock Holmes is dead.
We will return in two weeks with season 2, The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Next week, we will explore the very beginning of the Great Detective’s life. ML
I remember the climactic fight and fall sequence and Watson’s heavy heart speech for the very end, saying that Holmes was the best and wisest man he had ever known. Eric Porter’s Moriarty, except for Leo McKern in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, was the first Moriarty that I had seen. Looking back on him now, even after other strong actors as Moriarty, like Andrew Scott, Jared Harris and Natalie Dormer, it’s more admirable to see how the earlier decades for the famous sleuth adaptations for BBC television established all their powerful villains as with their heroes. As another reminder of how personally healthy our nostalgia can be regarding our favorite hero-vs-villain franchises in the 20th century, it’s good that Moriarty earns a fine recognition for Britain’s most pivotally fictional villains here on the Junkyard like the Master and Davros. Thank you, ML.
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